How do children learn language in a bilingual or multilingual environment?

At Indigo we work with every day with children learning many languages at once. Children learning in a language other than their mother tongue face some unique challenges.  They will most likely experience a great benefit from their multilingualism but it can result in slower academic progress initially and if the child does not have a strong first language then this can cause issues with language and learning.  Research shows that it is not true that children learn languages more quickly and easily than adults; however, they do experience less embarrassment and are more often immersed in a second language by their daycare or school.

Common Myths:

  • Children struggling in English language schools need more exposure to English and less to their mother tongue
  • It takes 1-2 years for children learning through a language other than their mother tongue to learn the skills to be successful in class.
  • Younger children learn more easily than older children
  • If English is the language of instruction children should always speak English in the classroom

These myths can lead to unhelpful practices both in schools and at home that rather than helping development can cause further stress for children and their families.  There are some simple things that parents can do to make sure their child gets the most from their multilingual environment.

Firstly, parents should always speak their mother tongue to their children.  It may be that the child responds in English or is hesitant to speak the parents’ native language once they are schooled in another language but if they hear and understand then they will have access to this language.  Even if parents are concerned that their child needs to speak and improve their English, it is vital that the child has a sound first language, so it is always advised that you continue speaking your mother tongue.  The second language will fit into the existing language structures, so by doing this you are in fact helping them to be multilingual.  Children will not become “confused” by having two parents that speak different languages as long as each family member’s use of language is consistent.

Sometimes when children have specific learning or language difficulties there can be benefit in reducing the number of languages at home but this would depend on parents’ proficiency and should be discussed with a language or education professional.

It is important that parents and educators know that children can become conversationally very adept in a second language but research shows that it takes 5-7 years for academic language to develop, so children may appear to be falling behind at school and this could be put down to a learning problem when in fact it is a second language problem, which is masked by their good conversational skills.  This can be helped by children having opportunities to talk about their academic work in small groups in their mother tongue if the opportunity is available in their classroom, and/or having instruction in their mother tongue.

Any further English tuition should be delivered by a native English speaker in order to be sure that the instruction is helpful.  Usually children “catch up” and multilingualism has a beneficial effect on cognitive development but this is not the case for all children and some extra support or slightly different approaches can be very helpful.

If you would like extra advice from our speech therapists, or are concerned your child may have some language or learning problems please contact our team.

Dr Angela Simcox, Clinical Psychologist

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